Hope for Watts Calvary Chapel

Hope for Watts Calvary Chapel

Hope Central Watts Calvary Chapel, CA: “Walking” Out Prayer, Shining Christ’s Light “Walking” the Talk, Shining the Light of Jesus

Story by Margot Bass
Photos courtesy of Gabriel Arreola and Ricky Garcia

The Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA, was a hub for racial tension between the predominantly African-American community and the local police in a series of riots that erupted in August of 1965. The “Watts Rebellion” lasted for six days, resulting in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, and 4,000 arrests, involving 34,000 people and ending in the destruction of 1,000 buildings, totaling $40 million in damages.

More than 50 years later—as neighborhoods throughout the country reacted to the murder of George Floyd in the Summer of 2020—Watts found itself in the spotlight again. The following piece highlights Hope Central Watts, a Calvary Chapel affiliate, and a deliberate effort to turn a negative event into positive change for Christ. 

Standing on the steps of a junior high school in Watts, CA, on Saturday, June 13, José Hernandez spoke through a bullhorn, preparing approximately 200 men and women to cover the well-known Los Angeles neighborhood with prayer and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The mixed crowd of African Americans, Whites, Hispanics, and Asians was peaceful, enthusiastic, and ready.

José is the senior pastor of Hope Central Watts, a Calvary Chapel that has lovingly served the neighborhood for nine years. He described Watts as a “typical ghetto” that has experienced deep poverty; it was also the scene of racial riots in 1965 and 1992. The now predominantly Hispanic neighborhood is home to four government housing developments and has birthed infamous gangs that have spread to the rest of the country. “It’s really not known for good things, but God is doing something great in a place like this,” José emphasized. His small, multicultural church—often working in cooperation with the Los Angeles Police Department and other churches—continues to shine the light of Jesus into a dark place.

A Biblical Response to Crisis

José and his leadership team had prayed about how to respond to the unrest raging around the country following the death of George Floyd at police hands. “We wanted to show that we stand with our brothers and sisters who are Black. We believe that what happened was wrong and that God wants justice as well,” José stated. But it was important that it be done right. “We couldn’t do it in unrighteousness or in a way that doesn’t honor God. With all the [current] noise and uncertainty, the community’s looking to the church to be the leaders, the ones to stand in the gap,” Jose asserted. His leaders agreed that they needed to get out there and proclaim Jesus. “We wanted God to be exalted above all the noise, and we wanted to start and end with the Word of God.”

crowd prays for officer

Members of Hope Central Calvary Chapel Watts, CA join the community and local police to display unity as part of an organized prayer march amidst racial tension in the country. Pastor José Hernandez, Hope Central Calvary Chapel Watts CA, has formed a strong bond with local LAPD and notes many local officers have donated money from their own pockets to help youth initiatives.

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good things, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Isaiah 52:7

Hope Central Watts promoted the prayer walk on social media and to churches in the area, including nearby Calvary Chapel South LA (SOLA), CA, and Calvary Chapel Inglewood, CA. Members of at least six different churches, as well as community organizations, joined the morning walk; some drove an hour and a half from Riverside, CA, to support the event.

José passionately addressed the gathered walkers. “That so many people have died from injustice is wrong. If you hurt, I hurt; if you cry, I cry. Your lives matter to God; we have been made in His image. But when sin entered the Garden of Eden, that image [in us] was marred. So we need to pray, ask God for forgiveness, and ask Him to heal our land. It’s because of the [sinful] things that we’ve allowed and done that this calamity has come upon us.”

He continued, “Turn around and look at someone. Not everyone looks the same, do they? But we need to start here. This is our training ground. It’s about God being represented today under the banner of Jesus Christ.” Then the large group walked, often stopping and praying, for nearly four miles. A man from another local church carried a cross. “I asked him to be at the front of the march because we wanted the cross to go before us,” José explained.

prayer walk

Pastor José addresses the community during a prayer walk organized by Hope Central Calvary Chapel Watts, CA. The march began at the church in Watts and ended at the local LAPD precinct.

Saturated in Prayer

The answer to the unrest, José expressed, is prayer. “Yes, we’ll stand when we need to stand when something’s wrong, but at the same time, we have to pray. And then we have to pray some more. The sinful heart is the issue, and it’s only God who can change it.”

Church leaders with bullhorns and speakers shared the Gospel throughout the walk. José recalled, “We walked through—not around—the projects, then stopped at the end of the projects and prayed again. From there, we went to the iconic, artistic Watts Towers, shared the Word of God, and prayed again.” They ended back at the school for more prayer. “It’s a beautiful thing to pray in unity,” Jose said.

Bill Buffington, pastor of Calvary Chapel Inglewood, prayed at the end that the church would demonstrate to the world that the answer is Jesus. “It’s through Christ that all that’s broken is healed.”

“If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7:14

Central Watts

Community members, church goers and police brace one another while during a prayer walk organized by Hope Central Calvary Chapel Watts, CA

One young man walking beside the group continually urged anyone listening to be redeemed by Jesus Christ and renewed by the transformation of their minds (Romans 12:2). He prayed for police officers, gang members, and against “a spirit of offense. Jesus’ blood is the only thing that makes us right,” he exhorted.

At one stop, José stood up on a bench and challenged the walkers: “Maybe we need to call somebody today and forgive them. We might even have to forgive someone who could care less about our forgiveness. Let’s see what God will do. He is amazing.”

Special Prayer Appointments

José urged the walkers to take advantage of opportunities throughout the day—and they did. “I’ve never had anyone refuse prayer. If God gives you opportunities, then pray for them.”

Officers from the LA Police Department supported the prayer walk from beginning to end. Four officers mingled with the walkers and two followed slowly in a squad car, stopping traffic for them. As the prayer walkers were ready to disband, the officers stepped forward to ask for prayer. As José called them near, he assured them that they could keep a distance if they didn’t want to be touched during the prayer. One officer quickly responded, “It’s OK if you want to.” The group gathered close to the officers, laying hands on them. “We put ourselves in their shoes. They are only men and women, and tensions are high right now. Their anxiety is up. So we prayed for wisdom, that God would fill them. When you’re already anxious, and you pull a car over, tensions can really dominate a situation,” José related. “We prayed that in the difficulty and challenges, that they would seek God, and that God would respond to their cries. I believe they took away from this that there is hope and that not everyone is against them. They appreciate that the community where they work would stand with them.”

believer encourages police officer

A woman places her arm on a police officer as a show of support during a prayer.

Martha, a Hispanic woman from Hope Central Watts who speaks very little English, met one of the officers for the first time during the walk. He speaks Spanish well. José said, “She encouraged and prayed for him, putting her hand on his back; they talked about what’s going on in the community.”

José and a group met an African American man in the projects, who asked about the cross a man carried. “We told him and then said, ‘Hey, come with us,’ and he came. Whatever plans he had, he just left all that to come with us. It reminded me of when Jesus said to Matthew, ‘Follow Me,’ and he did.”

Walkers passing a community health clinic saw nurses, dressed in personal protective equipment, standing at a side gate. “I started saying, ‘Thank you’ and ‘God bless you,’” José recounted. But as he moved on, walkers near him stopped to pray for the ladies. As they left, the women waved enthusiastically back. “I can’t even imagine how those ladies felt to know that they were acknowledged and valued. It was cool,” José observed.

One of the deputies from the mayor’s office walked the entire path. “As we were walking, she asked me to pray for her. She told me how difficult it’s been because of the tension among the government, police, and the communities. She has to hear from all sides.”

praying for Pastor José

Participants from all walks of life brace Pastor José during prayer.

A Reluctant Homecoming

José knows Watts well, and not just as pastor of Hope Central Watts. The school steps where he started the prayer walk took him 30 years into his past. As a 13-year-old student at that school, José had been initiated into a gang and into a future that looked bleak. After leaving the notorious community he had grown up in, he remembered, “I wanted to get away as far as I could and never come back to Watts.”

José reflected, “Growing up, I didn’t have a father in my home, the same problem that a lot of the kids in my community have. I knew who he was, but he was in and out, violent and abusive to my mom and us; I found comfort in the streets with my friends. We were the bad boys, and girls liked the bad boys. We ran the streets, and there was safety in numbers.” It took being locked up and facing jail time to wake him up. “God had mercy on me.” José started a job, and a man he had never met before told him about Calvary Chapel Downey, CA. “I was working, released on probation, and had to do all these anger management classes because of what I had done.” José literally lived across the street from Calvary Chapel Downey. “That’s where God began to do a work. It took about 10 years for me to surrender my life to Jesus.” He completed training in Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa’s School of Ministry, intending to serve at Calvary Chapel Downey.

“When God called me back, it wasn’t like ‘OK, Lord, high-five, I’m going.’ It was more like, ‘I’m not going back to Watts. I’m going to be a pastor at Calvary Chapel Downey,’” he admitted. However, during a mission trip to the earthquake-devastated island of Haiti, he found himself preaching the Gospel under a collapsed house. “I [sensed] the Lord saying, ‘Did you want a building or do you want a church?’ I realized I was looking for security because I had never had it—like so many who I minister to. Jesus was asking me to make Him my security.”

walking through street with cross

Men, women and children from various ethnic backgrounds display unity as part of the prayer walk organized by Hope Central Calvary Chapel Watts, CA.

Building Bridges Every Day

“We can’t just preach the Word, we’ve got to live it out,” José declared. “Service is not just on Sunday.

“Pastor Jeff Johnson of Calvary Chapel Downey would always say, ‘Outside these doors is your mission field,’” José recalled. “If you travel west about 25 minutes from Calvary Chapel Downey, you’ll get to Watts, and that’s where you have housing projects, gangs, drugs, prostitution, and sex trafficking,” Jose noted. “But the people are resilient, and God is faithful—here we are at nine years and He is still growing us in ways I would have never thought possible.”

Hope Central Watts started with a case of water at a basketball court in the park where Hope Central Watts now meets. José confirmed, “That’s all I had: a case of water and a bunch of kids who were sweaty and playing ball. Instead of having them drink out of the nasty water fountain that probably had rusty pipes, we offered them bottles of water that had Scriptures on the labels.” Six months later, José and his team started the church, inviting other Calvary Chapels from Orange County to assist.

At first, he remarked, he was tempted to copy how church was done at Calvary Chapel Downey. “The Lord shut that down really quickly. I realized that my community looks and smells different, and ministry is very involved. I’ve buried black kids, sat in their classrooms, and gone to their graduations. We’ve taken them on their first plane rides, to a camp in Missouri, to a mountain camp every summer, and even to the beach.” Many residents of Watts, he confessed, have never been to the beach, just 15 to 20 minutes away. “Being the hands and feet of Jesus in a place like this is different, but it’s been so great.”

José leads group on prayer walk

Pastor José leads the prayer march to the local LAPD precinct to show unity between the community and police in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Pastor Jose congratulates the police for stepping up in several ways, including filling in for girls who didn’t have fathers for the annual father/daughter dance.

The church has a strong youth ministry, often working with 40 to 50 kids at a time. “I would say that 90% of them, especially the boys, don’t have a father showing them how to be men. Don’t mistake this: The streets, the gangs, the dope dealer, the pimp—they’re going to show those boys how to be men,” Jose warned. “They want to be part of something; they want community and affirmation, things they lack. And they are willing to do things that most of us wouldn’t do to get them.”

More than racism, the underlying cause of the civil unrest in the inner city—and the country—is often broken homes and absence of fathers, José suggested. “These are the needs we’re really addressing every day, not just when something bad happens. Collectively, our church, along with other Calvary Chapels, has been building black lives. We have to be the father-figure in some cases, but God has called us to be fathers to the fatherless.”

Hope Central Watts has brought people in from the outside to serve a community “that hasn’t been taken care of in years, where people always get the leftovers. We’ve been able to bring the best,” José affirmed, including an annual catered Thanksgiving dinner for the community. In Matthew 5:16, Jesus says, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Jose expounded, “It doesn’t get any simpler than that. There is so much need in inner city church work, where there are some awesome bridges for service. That’s what Saturday’s prayer walk was about: showing our community that we care enough to pray, to cry out to God to move in power.”

José speaks through megaphone

Pastor José speaks to the community during the prayer march.

Investment and Consistency

Inner city ministry is about investing time, treasure, and talent—and learning about real needs. “If you are doing life with people, … being involved in the lives of your members, then you know the real needs. You know the single mom who needs an alternator in her car and that she’s struggling by herself with four kids. You also know these kids almost like your own. That’s where investing comes in so much,” José observed. “Predominantly, it’s done through the Word of God and discipleship. But then there are times, especially before COVID-19, when kids could come and do their homework, get tutoring, print out resumes and homework, and get on a laptop and do a research paper. We have kids who are the very first ones in their families to get jobs or graduate.” In Watts, ministry might look like taking kids to buy shoes or food, or even taking them to get their birth certificates.

The church has been deeply involved in the community, having served around 250,000 plates of food in nine years. During the COVID-19 lockdown, Hope Central Watts has fed 100 families a week and provided essentials that many were not able to get. He pondered, amazed, “These families have food on their tables because God decided to put us in a place I never wanted to return to. We’re loving these communities, just doing what God has called us to do. All we have is a few loaves and a few fishes—we’re a little church in Watts that doesn’t have much. But God takes that and multiplies it every single time.”

people walking down street with cross

A member of the community carries the cross as a symbol of peace during the prayer walk organized by Hope Central Calvary Chapel Watts, CA.

A Challenge to Suburban Churches

José, who is concerned with more than the struggles of Watts, challenged suburban churches to participate in consistent ministry to America’s inner cities. Over the years, he’s invited churches from other states to help in Watts. Calvary Church in Aurora, CO, has sent its entire school of ministry; Calvary Chapel Marysville, WA, sent its entire youth group. “In the spiritual sense, the only solution to inner city problems is Jesus. But in the practical way, how do we build bridges into these communities that are all over the country? There’s so much to do there,” he exhorted. “Unfortunately, there are many in the suburban churches who would rather drive to the Los Angeles airport, jump on a plane, and fly over us to go to another country—rather than to minister to the inner city. It always grieves me because there’s so much need, and nobody’s flocking to southside Chicago, Watts, and St. Louis [needy areas] to be consistently involved in something big that God is doing there.”

Then [Jesus] said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” Matthew 9:37-38

A short-term outreach is a good start, José said, but consistency is more important. “After the weekend outreach, what happens on Tuesday when someone in that neighborhood is raped? On Wednesday when someone gets shot? On Thursday when someone needs to print out a resume? That’s what God has given us.” Churches considering this type of ministry need to count the cost, he cautioned. “You have to realize that just going on a weekend mission is not going to work. It’s about [being there] and consistently chipping away at the problems.” God has been able to break down walls between cultures through the partnerships with outside churches. Jose shared, “Sometimes it’s not that people are racist, but that they don’t understand each other. One weekend a Korean church came to minister here. The Korean kids were playing basketball with the African American kids. I could see the expression on their faces: ‘Those Korean kids can play ball like that?’” he remembered with a chuckle.

praying for Pastor José

Two men extend their arms and brace Pastor José while praying.

Partnerships with the Police

Hope Central Watts has fostered a strong relationship with the LAPD, working together to strengthen police-community bonds. “What a lot of people screaming ‘Defund the Police’ don’t know is that the LAPD has a special unit called the Community Safety Partnership. These men and women are responsible for creating programs for inner city kids,” José said. Those programs include a Girl Scout troop serving hundreds, a pee-wee football team associated with the Los Angeles Rams, and an after-school mentoring program. “I know some officers who go into their personal wallets to fill the needs of some of those kids. You don’t hear about that because it doesn’t sell,” Jose stressed.

Eight years ago, Hope Central and the LAPD jointly started the Father-Daughter Dance in Watts, the first in the community. José described it: “All these little girls who didn’t have fathers in their lives were escorted to the dance by a police officer. More than 600 girls from five different schools have been to the dance, blessed, prayed over, and given the opportunity to hear the Gospel.”


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